Healthcare on a budget: A new trend?

The trend of Americans cutting back on healthcare use during tough economic times is nothing new, considering that many lose their jobs and, in turn, their health insurance. However, according to statistics touted by financial gurus at companies like insurance giant WellPoint (NYSE: WLP), the drop-off this time around is particularly large, causing some experts to prognosticate that real cost changes could be more than just a pipe dream, reports the Wall Street Journal

"We have a very weak economy and it's just a different environment for the elective parts of healthcare," health economist Paul Ginsburg, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change, told the Journal. "[T]his could go beyond the recession. Being a less aggressive consumer of healthcare is here to stay." 

For example, 18 million Americans opted to go the high-deductible plan route this year, Paul Mango, director of consulting firm McKinsey & Co., told the Journal. Last year, that number was 13 million. 

Lab-testing company Quest Diagnostics Inc., also reported that due partially to a decline in the number of doctor visits by patients, its volume has continuously fallen throughout the year (2.6 percent in the first quarter and 1.3 percent in Q2). According to Thomson Reuters, the number of doctor visits has fallen in every month in 2010, with visits falling 7.6 percent from May of last year to May of this year. 

Hospital visits, the article points out, also fell in three of the first four months so far this year. 

"People just aren't using healthcare like they have," Wayne DeVeydt, WellPoint's chief financial officer, told the Journal. "Utilization is lower than we expected, and it's unusual." 

To learn more:
- read this Wall Street Journal article
- check out Quest Diagnostics' Q2 earnings update
- here's Thomson Reuters' Consumer Healthcare Sentiment Index for May 2010 data